HOUSE OF SECRETS
Christine Foster sat with her stepfather at the bar in Denver International Airport, her eyes trained on the hideous swirls of snow having their way with the terminal's large slanted windows. Her stepfather was watching them as well. For the better part of the past hour, Ben Turner had been digging his thumbnail into the label of his beer bottle, rendering it a shredded mess. Anyone watching the two would have thought that he was the one waiting to hear the status of his night flight from Denver to New York.
Ben looked up from his mutilation project. "Are you getting a signal?"
Christine's cell was pressed to her ear. The straps of her camera had ridden up on her neck, catching some of her hair. She twisted her body slightly on the bar stool in a vain attempt to escape the musicSteely Dan's 'Reeling in the Years'pumping relentlessly from the low ceiling speakers. She ignored Ben's question as her husband's outgoing message gave over to the beep.
"Hi, honey," Christine said loudly. She bent further into her phone. "Mrs. Miniver here. I'm at the airport. It's my guess we're about to be officially socked in, but I haven't heard for sure yet. This snow is intense. If I come home with frostbite and you're all tanned and yummy, I'm going to kill you, I swear. You have been warned."
She aimed a smile over at her mother's husband. "Ben's here with me. We're getting plastered at the bar. You'd be so ashamed of me. Listen, I'll call you later when I know something. I hope your talk went well. I can't wait to see you. Mother sends her worst, ha ha."
As Christine tucked the phone back into her purse, Ben asked, "He wasn't there?"
Christine took a beat. The question was classic Ben. For reasons that Christine was certain she would never fully fathom, her mother had decided to take as Spouse Number Two the type of person who would watch a person leaving a message for someone over the phone and then ask, He wasn't there? Sweet man, but only nominally more dramatic than a paper clip. He and Lillian had now been married for just over six years. For someone like Lillian, Ben had been an astonishing plunge into meekness, about as far from Christine's fatherwho was still very much aliveas she could have gone. But then, Lillian lived to astonish.
Christine confirmed Ben's deduction. "No. He wasn't there."
"What's 'Mrs. Miniver'?"
Christine was readjusting the strap of her camera. "That? It's just silliness. Andy's in eternal love with Greer Garson. Always has been. The man swoons. The very first time we met, he went through his whole Greer Garson song and dance. She's so beautiful, she's so warm, she's so spunky. Those seem to be the big three. And of course he said I reminded him of her, thank you muchly. Though I guess that's not such a bad pickup line. 'You remind me of someone I absolutely adore'" She laughed. "I was certainly not immune."
Outside the window, furious gusts were whipping the snow about, as if the night was determined to beat down the glass and roar right into the terminal. From the blackness, a large blob-like shape appeared and smacked hard against the window. Christine and Ben started. It was a tarp of some sort, possibly torn loose from one of the luggage wagons. The tarp rotated slowly on the glassit too looked as if it wanted inthen peeled back along one corner and was flung back into the night.
Christine's milky skin had gone a shade sour. She turned to Ben.
"News flash. Mrs. Miniver is not climbing into any goddamned airplane tonight, no matter what anybody says. Just how dumb do I look?"
Dimitri Bulakov twisted the cap from the wet bottle and tossed it in a high arc toward the black plastic trash can. It hit the television set atop the dresser, bounced off Barbra Streisand as she was charming the great Louie Armstrong with her invisible trombone, and fell to the harsh carpet.
Dimitri could not understand what it was about this woman on the television that had made her such a big American star in her day. She is pushy. Her eyes are too small and too close together. And the nose, it is more like a joke than a nose. It is the nose of a camel. A camel could fit into this nose. Dimitri wondered, what is it about her? He supposed that if he and this pushy woman were stranded together on a deserted island, okay, that was one thing. But otherwise...
In just under an houraccording to the cardboard triangle on top of the televisionthe next movie would be starting. It starred the actress Angelina Jolie. This, Dimitri thought, makes sense. He could imagine spending many many many months on the island with someone like this. Dimitri glanced around the wood-paneled confines of his motel room and imagined Angelina Jolie coming in from the tiny bathroom wrapped in a small towel, her big hair falling down past her shoulders like wet snakes, and looking at him with those mean sexy eyes of hers. Dimitri slid his free hand down the front of his boxers. As he did, his gaze drifted to the mirror that sat behind the television set. Reflected in the glass was a puffy-faced, forty-one-year old man sporting an impressive beer gut and a nest of wiry black hair all over his torso, holding a beer bottle in one hand, and with his other hand shoved down the front of his faded plaid boxers. On the TV, Camel Nose and Louie Armstrong were making goo-goo eyes at each other and laughing uproariously.
Dimitri withdrew his hand from his boxers.
His cell phone rang.
Dimitri hit the mute button on the television and scooped the phone off the pillow next to him. The accent on the other end of the line was the same as Dimitri's.
"They're on their way."
Dimitri scooted up in the bed. "Yes."
"Everything is set?"
Dimitri answered thickly. "Good to go." Dimitri liked this expression, thought he wasn't happy with the way it had sounded just now. Two or three times recently in front of the bathroom mirror, he had gotten it pretty good. Good. To. Go.
There was a pause on the other end of the phone. Then, "You'll call me once it's done."
It was not a question.
"The sound quality is good? We will be able to hear everything?"
Dimitri scowled. "I told you. It's all good. It's ready. I know what I am doing."
The irritation in his voice was evident. On the silent television screen the actress whose popularity Dimitri could not fathom was sauntering away from the camera spinning a parasol over her shoulder. Her dress came all the way to her feet and was nice and tight across her body. Nice rump, Dimitri thought. As round as her nose. This he could fathom.
"Call me," the man said again, and the phone went dead.
Dimitri hit the remote, and the hourglass figure vanished. He rolled off the bed and carried his beer bottle to the window, where he tweezered open the curtains to peer out into the night. Across the narrow road in front of the motel was the small beach, a crescent of sand bordering the inlet. The beach was empty, a lifeguard chair, a tangle of braided white cord pocked with red oval floats, an overturned rowboat. It was only April. In another few months, the renters and second-home owners from the city would be flooding the small island. But right now it was Deadtown.
At the far end of the beachto Dimitri's righta steep wooded hill rose up from the inlet. Several houses were tucked into the hill, though with no lights on in any of them they were difficult to spot. Dimitri turned from the window and knuckled the ENTER key on the laptop that was lying open on the second bed. He leaned past the computer to fetch his cigarettes and matches from the bedside table, shook one loose, and lit it. As a ghostlike rectangle burned into view on the computer's screen, Dimitri set down his beer bottle and took up a pair of binoculars from the bed. Scratching his belly, he returned to the window.
On the nearby hill Dimitri sighted the staccato illumination from a pair of headlights as a car passed amongst the trees. He trained the binoculars on an area near the highest part of the hill, where the front portion of a modest-sized house was visible. Several seconds passed, then a light-colored sports car came into view and pulled to a stop in front of the house.
Smoke from Dimitri's cigarette was stinging his eyes, but he ignored it as he toggled the binoculars' focus wheel. The driver's side door opened, and a woman stepped out of the car. She paused, raking both her hands through her hair. The passenger's side door opened, and a man emerged. Dimitri lowered the binoculars, peering through his smoke-teared eyes at the distant house and the barely discernible forms of two people heading toward the front door.
"Hello, Dolly," Dimitri intoned thickly. "Good to go."
And he turned to his computer.
Robert Smallwood sat hunched in the wooden lifeguard chair, hugging his long, chubby legs against his chest and gazing intently at the puckered stars overhead. It was Smallwood's contention It was Smallwood's contention that every single star dotting the vast black bowl was an eyean actual, glimmering, data-collecting eyeand that from the moment he had clamored up into the wooden chair those countless eyes peering down from the dark had all turned their attention to him. They were watching him. They were mesmerized by him. And just as the human eye is attached to a human consciousness, this extraordinary collection of eye-stars must be linked to a Supreme Sage Consciousness. And that Consciousnessof this he was positivewas fully aware of what it was Robert Smallwood was planning to do in just under a half hour's time. It knew. It was aware of his motivations and it was aware his intentions.
And it approved whole-heartedly.
The rope of muscles along Smallwood's shoulders ached wonderfully from the strenuous rowing across the choppy sound to the island beach several hours earlier. Once settled in the wooden chair he had made a vow to remain completely still and to simply wait, to keep all his energy balled up, hugging his knees to his chest and bringing forth his Prodigious Patience. The only part of his body to which he had granted permission to move was his glorious head, which swiveled slowly, like a methodical owl's: a perfect calibration of ball bearings in the neck. Smallwood scanned the calm inlet, taking in the black sound just beyond it, as well as the phosphorous haze hovering over sleepy Greenport Harbor some half mile distant. This sublime level of stillnesshis oscillating head notwithstandingenthralled Smallwood. Such contained and sustained energy, he couldn't explain. He found it so exciting. Smallwood felt that, had he chosen to, he could have detonated the energy gathered at his very core and propelled himself out into the sky exactly like a rocket or a missile. In fact, when at one point a shooting star grazed the edge of his peripheral vision, a Mona Lisa smile tugged at the corners of Smallwood's mouth.
That's me. There I go. Faster than a blazing motherfucker.
* * *
All flights were canceled. The midsection of the country was taking too hard a pounding. Ben and Christine were moving briskly through the terminal. Ben implored Christine as they stepped onto the moving walkway.
"But Lillian will insist that I bring you back home."
Christine was adamant. "It doesn't make any sense, Ben. I've had my visit. I'm just going to get a room in one of the hotels here. I'll fly out as soon as the weather clears. I tried to tell you both it wasn't necessary for you to drive me out here in the first place."
"I know. But..." Ben gave up the fight.
"If you want me to call Lillian myself and tell her, I will."
"No. It's okay, Chrissie. I'll explain it to her. Don't worry about it."
As they reached the end of the moving walkway Christine spotted an airport bookstore. She brushed Ben's elbow.
"Hold on a second."
Pulling her roller bag behind her, she veered off the carpeted hallway and into the store. A round table just inside the entrance held a pyramid display of the current bestseller by the latest spiritual health guru, a seven-figure smile beaming from the book's cover. Christine moved past the guru's pyramid to a second display table, this one featuring several titles in more modest stacks. Christine picked a book off one of the stacks. Even three weeks into the whole thing, the funny feeling still came to Christine's stomach when she saw Andy's book.
A Sense of Urgency
Christine still considered the photograph on the cover essentially shameless: her and Andy's daughter Michelle (six years old in the photograph; seven and a half years old now) whispering something into her daddy's ear and Andy responding with a huge burst of laughter. Part of what was so special about the photograph was the knowing expression on Michelle's face, the little girl's awareness that what she was whispering to Daddy would definitely trigger his funny bone. The striking family similarity in the two faces lent an additional power to the photograph. Little Wizard, Big Wizard. Neither Andy nor Christine could recall precisely when the paired nicknames had first surfaced, but Michelle and her father had been employing them on each other now for several years at least. Christine had thrown a small fit during Andy's recent re-election campaign when Andy had allowed the media (invited, had been Christine's assertion) to catch Michelle on tape using the nickname. Michelle had subsequently been referred to as "the Wiz Kid" in most of the news outlets, a development that had done little to stem Christine's irritation with her husband.
"The next time you want to exploit our child, why don't you put her on your payroll first?" Christine had told him pointedly. "There's one public figure in this household, okay? And it's not the kid with the pink backpack."
As she gazed at the cover of her husband's book, Christine was seized by twin twinges of guilt and hypocrisy, hardly the first of either. The truth was she had not only been the one to tell Michelle what to whisper into Daddy's ear, she had been the one aiming the camera, nailing the composition perfectly. It's what she did. She took pictures. What was worse was that ultimately she had allowed Andy and his editor convince her that the photograph absolutely had to be the cover of Andy's book. The sense of hypocrisy Christine felt whenever she fielded compliments on the photograph was due in no small part to the fact that for all that it irked her, giving in to the use of her daughter's image for the furthering of Andy's career, she couldn't help but take pride in the photograph itself. It was superb. She knew it. In the end, it had been on that basis as much as anything else that Christine had conceded and given her blessings for its use.
Ben appeared next to her. "You know, I've been dying to ask. Just what is she saying to Andy that's so funny?"
Christine shrugged. "Oh, who knows? It's just those two. They're always goofing together."
The fact was, Christine remembered exactly. She had instructed Michelle what to whisper to Andy, a comment about her grandmotherChristine's mother- using one of the nicknames that Christine and Andy had developed for Lillian over the years. The last thing Christine was going to do was tell this to Ben.
The two exited the bookstore, Ben insisting on commandeering Christine's roller bag. Christine granted the man his chivalry, and as the two continued down the terminal hub, Ben asked yet another question whose answer he already knew.
"So, when does Andy get back from Florida?"
"He flies into D.C. tomorrow morning," Christine said. "Then home for the weekend, and we'll spend Easter with my dad and Jenny."
"And the book? It's selling well?"
"It's looking pretty good so far. Everybody seems to be pleased. Andy's been getting more-than-decent turnouts at the bookstores." She let out a gently mocking laugh. "The publisher's hoping that all the retired New Yorkers down in Florida will flock to see the great man."
An electric cart carrying half a dozen elderly passengers was trundling down the center of the wide aisle, beeping as it approached. Ben and Christine skirted to the side to let it pass. Christine noted the anxious expression on her stepfather's face. "Is everything okay, Ben?"
Ben's gaze trailed after the receding cart. "Maybe. . .I probably shouldn't be bringing this up. But...I just wanted to say that it was really good of you to visit. Seriously. I know your mother can be a handful sometimes"
"Don't worry about that. I'm a tough young cuss. I'm used to it."
"It's not that she's not happy when you visit. You know that, right? It's just how she is sometimes."
"Sometimes?" Christine could not contain her laugh. "Good Lord, Ben, you should be the one in politics. You said that with a completely straight face! Yeah. I most certainly do know how she is. Half a country's distance is a beautiful thing."
"Your mother misses the East. Denver is just not Lillian's speed."
Christine scoffed. "Neither was Albany. And apparently neither was Greenwich. In fact, even London didn't seem to float her boat. I'm not sure that anywhere is Miss Lillian's speed. You're amazingly sweet to put up with her, Ben. I mean that. She's very lucky to have you. Daddy used to say that governing the state of New York was the simple part. It was governing his wife that took all his real skills."
Ben's nervous laugh betrayed scant comfort. The poor man, Christine thought. I'm not telling him anything he doesn't know.
* * *
Smallwood spotted the ferry within a minute of its leaving Greenport. Small ferry, maybe ten cars max. In the on-season the ferry made the run over and over, especially on weekends. Foot passengers off the train from the city usually outnumbered the cars. The island was small, and car overcrowding was becoming an increasing summer concern, much more so now than back when Smallwood was a boy and had spent large portions of each summer on the island, sharing the house with his cousins and his aunt and uncle.
Smallwood watched as the ferry carrying his cousin Joy crossed the bay and disappeared from sight on the other side of the wooded point that jutted into the water. Smallwood's insights about Cousin Joy had been running like a powerful waterfall for months now, his large brain gathering and processing and gathering and processing with prodigious efficiency. He had her nailed, pegged, analyzed, dissected.
It was not a very settling analysis.
Joy was the reason that Smallwood had taken the train out from the city and then 'borrowed' the rowboat to travel over to the island. He had come to confront Joy with the results of his analyses. There could be no more avoiding it. His cousin had had less and less time for him these days. When they were kids, they'd been close. Summers on the island had always been so much fun. But lately, blowing him off seemed to have become a hobby of Joy's, and Smallwood was fed up with it. He was fed up with a lot of things these days. More and more, the world threw the large man into a fury. It was a mess and getting messier. Certainly his cousin was a mess. He barely recognized the sweet little girl from his youth. She was arrogant and loud and cold. She was not making the world a better place. Her behavior was horrendous. This is what he wanted to talk with her about. But Joy refused to talk with him. It had been a pure fluke that she had refused his most recent request that they get together by letting him knowangrilythat she was heading out that night to the family house on Shelter Island.
Or possibly not a fluke. Possibly it was all in the stars.
The temperature had dropped in the past hour. Thin clouds of Smallwood's breath steamed from his nostrils as he waited. Some fifteen minutes after the ferry docked, a car's headlights had appeared on the hill, stopping at the very last house. Through the magic of sound on water, Smallwood had heard a pair of doors closing, followed by the tiny buzzing sounds of conversation. A man. A woman.
Smallwood rose, his knees complaining slightly. Stretching his arms out from his sides for balance, he stepped from the lifeguard chair and landed softly in the sand, cushioning the drop with his knees. Lifting his feet decorouslylike a slow prancing Andalusian horselarge and determined Robert Smallwood marched along the sand toward the road, feeling extremely goddamned noble.
As Christine stepped onto the escalator, her attention was drawn to an elderly man standing at the bottom, edging onto the moving stairs using a wooden cane. He was dressed in a plaid jacket and a red bowtie, and was stooped with age; a swollen mound rose between his small shoulders. His hair was wavy and cotton-white, and his salt and pepper eyebrows flared at the ends. He looked like a lost vaudevillian.
Instinctively, Christine reached for her camera and began firing off shots of the man, at the same time taking methodical steps backwards on the moving stairs so that she might stay in place near the top of the escalator. Each foot landed seamlessly on the next descending stair. Ben continued down toward the bottom.
The man in the bowtie was hesitating at the bottom of the escalator, poking tremulously at the moving stairs with the tip of his cane, but finally he committed. Christine was capturing dozens of images, firing off rapid-fire shots. She paused, ceasing her backpedaling and squeezed the zoom. An elegant face of thin rubbery folds filled the viewfinder, and Christine tightened the frame even more. It was only the precise instant that the white-haired man looked directly over into her camera that Christine became aware of the tears of humiliation glistening on his cheeks.
The two passed in the middle. As she reached the bottom, Christine wanted nothing else but for a second escalator to open up in front of her and take her down, down, down. She stepped over to a row of chairs and dropped into the first one she reached. The pitiable man's mournful face filled her mind and she had an urge to go racing up the escalator, to find the man, to do... something. She didn't budge. Her eyes fell blindly on two women seated across from her. It took the better part of a minute for it to dawn on her what book one of the two women was reading. The teary old man dissolved from Christine's mind. She realized she was staring at the photograph of her handsome laughing husband and her mildly exploited daughter.
Something felt terribly, terribly wrong.
To avoid the crunching sound of gravel underfoot, Smallwood kept off the driveway. His breathing was labored, both from walking up the steep road as well as from the adrenaline rushing powerfully through his system.
The trees surrounding the house created an additional canopy of darkness. Smallwood felt as if he could swipe his hand through the air in front of him and come up with a smear of black on his fingers. The vision further suggested to him that were he to circle the house several dozen times before entering it, he could render himself an unseeable shadow form, as invisible as a gathering of wind.
The black wind of night.
Joy's Miata was parked on the gravel drive. Gray with a red interior. Smallwood stepped daintily over the gravel to the car and peered into the window. He was curious about the keys. The family habit when coming out to stay in the house was to forgo locks, forgo keys. The house had always been that sort of refuge from the otherwise restrictive and wary world. A place to let down your guard.
Yes. The keys were in the car.
As Smallwood turned to confront the house, echoes of the long-ago voices of himself and his cousins swirled deliciously in his head, and with no difficulty at all he could see Cousin Joy making one of those explosive leaps they all enjoyed making from the front porch, her ponytail rising behind her like an Indian's feather, her bare skinny limbs flying in their four directions.
Smallwood froze the image. While he held Cousin Joy suspended in the air, with her little pretty face open in a shriek of delight, Smallwood stepped over to the porch steps, planting himself where his mind had fixed her in space. He remained there, Black Wind of the Night, wholly motionless for a full minute....two... three...gazing at his own imagination. Inches from little Joy's face. Studying the tiny gap between her chiclet teeth. Breathing in her imagined scent.
Trying not to notice her skinny legs...the flimsy skirt...the breezy flapping hem.
Presently, Smallwood became aware of sounds. For a moment he thought the soft cooing sounds were coming from him, from his own sweet nostalgia. Then he recognized them for what they were. Not his pathetic pigeon sounds at all. Anything but. They were coming from the house.
No longer worried in the slightest about making noise, Smallwood marched to the side of the house and around toward the back. Off at the edge of the property, beyond the trees, floated the black pool of the inlet down below. As he neared the rear of the house the sounds became louder. Unmistakable. Moans.
Smallwood's shin banged against a hard object that was sticking out of the ground, and the white flash of pain fueled his surging anger. Smallwood knew what he'd hit, and he reached down and wrenched it from the ground. It made no difference to him that the metal horseshoes on the ground clanked. The couple inside the house couldn't hear a goddamned thing outside their own goddamned animal grunts. Smallwood flipped the iron horseshoe pole deftly, catching it just at the base. The dirt smudged into his palm.
In ten seconds he was on the back patio.
Through the sliding glass door he could see now what he had been hearing. His breath was pouring furiously from his nostrils as he tried the door. It was locked. The ghostlike figures on the bed didn't seem to notice a thing except themselves.
The crash of the horseshoe pole breaking through the glass changed all that.
Smallwood brought the iron rod down on the glass door in a swift series of blows, sweeping it in a circular motion to snap away the hanging shards. Joy's screams pierced the air. Smallwood reached inside the broken glass to flip the lock. He jerked the door open and charged forward, the iron bar lifted over his head. His naked targets were stranded on the bed, scrambling in place, kicking the white sheets into a pile. Joy the Disappointment and some irrelevant quivering dark-haired man.
Robert Smallwood had never felt more alive nor more important than he did as his armitself feeling long and liquid and, in such a peculiar way, sublimebegan its powerful descent.
He hoped the stars were watching.© Richard Hawke
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